A History of A.A.Brown & Sons
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by Douglas Tate, taken from his book Birmingham Gunmakers.
(Reproduced with the kind permission of Safari Press Inc. Images and captions added by Robin Brown in 2004 )
Only a handful of Birmingham gunmakers survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the period of austerity that followed. But one was established, survived, and ultimately succeeded during this difficult period for the trade. Albert Arthur Brown was the son of John Joseph Brown, a gunmaker who had at one time worked for Webley & Scott, B.S.A., and W. W. Greener and who ended his working career as resident caretaker with Greener.
(The following photograph reproduced with the kind permission of David Dryhurst / W. W. Greener & Co.)
A. A. Brown was an action filer who carved the leaf fences for the Birmingham trade. Although English gunmakers are a conservative lot by nature, not given to decorating their products with the bas-relief so familiar on Teutonic weapons, better-quality sidelocks are occasionally found with ivy, fern and oak leaves chased to the fences. It is difficult, demanding work requiring a hammer and chisel instead of the normal hand-held graver, but Albert Arthur Brown was considered one of the few men capable of executing it.
In 1930, after working for F. E. & H. Rogers in Loveday Street and just a few months after the collapse of the U. S. Stock Exchange precipitated the world's worst economic crisis, Albert Arthur established his own business at 27 Whittal Street in what was then the heart of the gun quarter.
A very wealthy few managed to breeze through the Depression in magnificent style, ordering best guns as usual. Since A. A. Brown made a specialty of building high-quality guns that were ultimately signed by more prestigious firms, he appears to have survived by virtue of the trickle-down effect. On the eve of the Second World War Albert Arthur was joined by his eldest son, Albert Henry, born in 1913. A few months later a second son, Sidney Charles, born in 1916, also came on board.
During the Second World War, when sport shooting was largely suspended, the family firm worked on weapons components for the War Department and made machine tools for that era's ultimate weapon, the Spitfire. Due to Hermann Goering's redevelopment of Whittal Street, A. A. Brown moved around the corner to 4, Sand Street in the early '40s. There was a brief sojourn to the suburb of Shirley when the bombing was at its worst and a return to the intact Sand Street premises in 1945.
During the austere period immediately after the war, when the steel tubes used to make shotgun barrels were unavailable, the Browns once again developed a strategy for survival. It is worth mentioning that Britain's industries were on a wartime footing for many years after Germany's surrender, and steel tubing that had been an important element of the armament's procurement took a long time to be rerouted into what were considered nonessential, leisure-oriented crafts like the building of sporting guns.
In 1945, Curry & Keen purchased the name, workshop, tools, and components of the established E. Anson & Co. on Steelhouse Lane. Among the materials purchased were parts for an air pistol, the Anson Star, now considered a rare collector's item, which Joe Curry asked the Browns to assemble. It was temporary work but appears to have provided the inspiration for an air pistol of the company's own design.
The "Abas Major" was of concentric design like the Anson Star, which inspired it. This means the compression cylinder envelops the barrels, providing a compact design. In his classic tome Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World, W. H. B. Smith calls the Abas Major "a better air pistol than most of the designs currently being made in Germany today. . . ." The visitor to Brown's current premises at 1 Snake Lane, Alverchurch, can see an example of the Abas Major fully engraved in bold foliate scroll in the manner of a Holland & Holland "Royal." It is the highest-quality British air pistol most visitors will ever see.
In 1948 tubes once more became available and the company ran down air-pistol production to again build shotguns. The firm's record books for the 1950s and '60s are replete with guns made by A. A. Brown & Sons for other makers.
A recent visitor was shown entries for Holland & Holland, John Harper, and even Alex Martin "ribless" guns. Robin Brown explained that the Browns had made "many of the ribless guns for Alex Martin" and many of the XXVs sold by E. J. Churchill. Alex Martin advertised that its ribless guns were "lighter, stronger and better balanced than guns of ordinary construction." Other advantages claimed were: 1) A quarter pound of useless metal is removed. 2) Removing this weight from the barrels makes the gun lighter forward, giving the left arm less work, more control, and an easier swing. 3) The usual hollow space between the barrels in which corrosion can take place undetected is eliminated. Guns in which the barrels were constructed with spacers at the breech, muzzle, and mid-barrel have a long tradition with Scotland's gunmakers—both Daniel Fraser and James MacNaughton made them. It is therefore a little ironic that by the early 1950s Alexander Martin, like most of the provincial British gun trade was having its guns made in Birmingham. Robin Brown explained how the Churchill firm would order guns of identical specifications from different makers Baker, Wrights or Brown that were engraved and finished except that the stock, though inletted and attached, remained in a rough and unfinished state. When a pair of guns was needed, Robert Churchill would select two likely candidates from the rack and have a stacker set about carving the wood to fit the customer. Robin's father, Sidney, said it was "pure hell" for the woodworker, but it meant finished guns could be ready in four or five weeks. On 9 January 1931, the Prince of Wales ordered a pair of Churchill "Premier" XXVs, and the guns were miraculously delivered five days later. Robin and Sidney Brown's explanation of how Churchill guns were made would account for the short delivery time.
Throughout the postwar period the Browns continued to build guns for the trade. Perhaps because they were industrious at a time when much of Britain wanted to rest after the exhausting task of defeating Hitler's Germany or perhaps because they had a mature highly skilled workforce dedicated to building the finest guns available they flourished where others had failed. When Joseph Asbury, which machined many of the actions for the trade went under, A. A. Brown acquired its machinery, giving Brown the capacity to machine its own actions from the raw forging. They also acquired the business and name of A. E. Bayliss & Co., a Birmingham Trade manufacturer who was pleased to pass his business over on his retirement. However, it was not all work, leisure was important too and the Browns were keen cricketers, so, naturally, they started a firm's team which played club league cricket during the '50s and '60s. Most of the employees were in the team and several outsiders including their accountant played too.
Albert Arthur Brown retired in 1957, but new blood arrived four years later when Sidney's son, Robin, joined the family firm as an apprentice stocker.
The pictures shown below are reproduced with the kind permission of Douglas Thompson, grandson of A.J.Thompson.
In the early 1960s, much of the gun quarter was redeveloped to make way for Birmingham's inner-ring road. It was a time of turmoil for the trade: Shooting was unfashionable, and apprentices were hard to find. Many well-known names R. B. Rodda & Co., Bentley & Playfair, and Clabrough & Johnstone disappeared rather than face the challenges of finding new premises, markets, and a work force. A. A. Brown's Sand Street premises became a multilevel parking structure, but the company found a new home within the Westley Richards firm out at Bournebrook. Westley Richards continued to build most of its own Anson and Deeley designed guns, particularly the hand-detachable lock model known to American collectors as the "droplock." However, for approximately fourteen years A. A. Brown built the Westley Richards best sidelock ejector gun together with a number of Connaught boxlocks using Brown's own thick walled replaceable hinge pin action which allowed for sleek rounded styling.
Another change of premises in 1974 this time to the country village of Alvechurch, fourteen miles south of Birmingham gave Brown an opportunity to change direction. Rather than continue to build a range of guns for the trade, A. A. Brown would henceforth make only best-grade sidelock ejectors, plus the occasional best boxlock, with a view to capturing a share of the bespoke or custom market. This is not a decision the Browns can take full credit for. It was partly a result of the Trade Description Act passed into law by the British government, which demands accuracy in product identification. The Browns interpreted this law to mean that they would no longer be allowed to build guns to which other makers put their names. However, the practice of well-known makers having guns built in the trade continues to this day, with outworkers apparently enjoying the same legal status as subcontractors.
The decision to leave an urban gunmaking center for a village mentioned in the Doomsday book (circa 1085-86) was a courageous one back in 1974. However, the Browns held an advantage: Most of the work on their guns was done in-house. Only the tubes were bought in and only the engraving was farmed out and only some of that, because they had a house engraver named Les Jones. Today, other independent gunmakers such as Alan Crew, Peter Chapman, and Peter Nelson have followed Brown's example, realizing that in the age of phone and fax, proximity is no longer essential to good gunmaking. The decision to build only best guns to clients' specifications has also proven prescient. With most of the "off-the-shelf "guns today coming from Italy or Japan, the remains of the Birmingham trade are polarized between repairs on the one hand and building best bespoke guns on the other, with the latter doing better than the former.
Brown's best gun is the model Supreme de Luxe, which uses a self-opening system similar to the Holland & Holland and a method of hand-detachable sidelocks like the Holland & Holland "Royal." If the mechanics of the Supreme Deluxe are similar to a Holland & Holland, the aesthetic is entirely A. A. Brown. The semi-rounded body of the Supreme Deluxe developed out of a customer's request for a gun that was "already worn." Slightly domed lock plates and a double bar to the action add to the effect of a rounded gun. It is this roundness that gives A. A. Brown guns their organic feel and distinctive appearance. Apart from the engraving and the rough barrel tubes, virtually all of the work, including lockmaking, is done in-house by Sidney and his son Robin. They are aided by Harold Scandrett, a veteran gunmaker with more than forty years of experience with the firm. The Supreme Deluxe is built entirely to customer specifications, using chopper lump barrels, actions hand-filed from a solid forging, and exhibition-grade walnut of either French or Turkish origin. Best-gun features include disc set strikers and gold plating of the lockwork and the self-opening mechanism. This is not done for cosmetic reasons, but rather for corrosion control and ease of maintenance.
Engraving in the past was executed in-house by Les Jones. Les was trained by the famous engraver Henry (Harry) Morris and later was a resident engraver for many years at W. W. Greener & Co. When Greener closed down Les went into the engineering trade working for Ward and Co., makers of machine tools and famous in their day for capstan lathes and the like. In 1962 Albert Brown persuaded Les to come back into engraving and he then worked full time for Browns until their move to Alvechurch in '74. He then semi retired and opted to work part time, still for Browns, in his home based workshop. He engraved until two weeks before his death in about 1980. He engraved solidly for Browns for about 18 years and engraved many guns for other makers during this time, notably Westley Richards, Holland & Holland, Wm.Powell & Son and Churchill. Browns also utilised the services part time of Master gun engraver Walter Howe. Walter was chief engraver at Webley & Scott and was awarded a Queens Award for services to gun engraving at the time of his retirement. He carried on engraving from home for many years both for Browns and for other gunmakers. Today, engraving on Brown guns is the work of modern master Keith Thomas, but clients can elect to go with any one of a stable of British engravers.
Customers have a choice of case-hardened or polished finish, with any combination of bouquet and scroll or game-scene engraving. Brown will build the Supreme Deluxe in any standard gauge in three weights: as a standard game gun, as a lightweight game gun, or as a slightly heavier pigeon gun. On average, Brown builds six to ten guns per year. In the past, the firm has also built several commemorative pieces a 28-bore for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, a pair of 20-bores for the same event and a magnificent pair of 20-bores commemorating Matthew Boulton, an important figure in the Industrial Revolution and Birmingham's most famous silversmith. Prices start at about £20,000 * for the standard game gun, and delivery time is about two years. Significantly about 80 percent of Brown's guns are purchased within Britain, traditionally a market where intrinsic quality at a fair price has been more important than a prestigious name. Most of the remaining 20 percent are sold to buyers in the United States.
All of the guns made in Alvechurch are recognizable by the ABAS trademark found on the action flats; first used as the name for an air pistol, it is an acronym for A. Brown and Sons. The ABAS markings are also a reliable, but not foolproof, way to tell whether your gun, ostensibly by another maker, was actually made by A. A. Brown. The method isn't foolproof because in the past some retailers insisted that Brown omit the ABAS mark in order to create the impression that they, the retailers, built the gun.
A. A. Brown & Sons has come a long way since the days it made airguns, and the quality of its workmanship has continued to rise throughout the '70s, '80s, and into the '90s. Because so few are made, the emphasis is on making every gun the best yet. As long as there are customers who have the taste and resources to invest £24,000 * in a Supreme Deluxe, A. A. Brown will not only survive but prosper.
Safari Press Inc. 15621 Chemical Lane #B, Huntingdon Beach, CA 92649, USA. Tel: 7148949080. Web: www.safaripress.com
Note: Extract from Birmingham Gunmakers by Douglas Tate. (This book is now out of print (2006) and can sometimes be found on Amazon / Used)
*** For up to date pricing, see our current price guide. ***2001 Update (by Robin Brown)
Since Douglas Tate wrote the above, Harold Scandrett and Albert H. Brown have both sadly passed away. Sidney still plies his trade on a part time basis and the firm has acquired the assistance of several gunsmiths.
Robin was elected to be Vice Chairman of the Guardians of the Birmingham Proof House.
During early 2004 Sidney decided to cease any part time working, however his services remain available as a consultant.
During 2005 Sidney sadly lost his wife, Mem, following a long illness. He also suffered a mini stroke which affected his memory and although he has improved during the year he struggles to recall recent events. His long term memory is better and whenever I mention the names and guns belonging to various customers he recalls them with enthusiasm.
Sidney's health continues as before and he still lives in his family home with regular visits from Carers to attend to his daily needs. His daughter, Pat and Robin both visit regularly and he seems to be reasonably content. He will be 90 this year and a celebration within the family is planned.
2006 Update # 2.
Sadly, Sidney died on June 15th 2006 after a short illness and a spell in hospital. He is greatly missed by all his family and leaves a marvelous legacy of work behind. An obituary can be found elsewhere in this website.
Robin continues to trade, still building a small quantity of traditionally made hand built side by side sporting guns and servicing many guns each year. Customising is very prominent in the list of activities carried on at Browns these days and extra help has been sought and found from both Birmingham trade sources and also from some London trained gunsmiths based in the home counties and London.